Have you ever noticed that the more famous a person becomes, the less accessible he or she becomes?
Marsha Collier is an exception to this theorem (and I thought I would never use my high school algebra).
As a leading expert on customer service, small-biz guru and best-selling author, she still lends a helping hand to others week in and week out.
And she knows her way around social media, which made her husband’s marriage proposal on Vine last year – covered by People magazine, Huffington Post and Mashable, among others – the perfect touch.
Today marks the debut of her eighth edition of “eBay For Dummies,” making it a good time to ask Marsha about her own storytelling and the book.
Lou: I contend that the vast majority of companies would improve their communications by simply adopting a conversational tone. You do such a great job in being conversational, and if I can go cliché on you, being real. Is this a natural part of who you are, or did you have a “see the light” experience?
Marsha: Thank you. That is something important to me. Many readers say that reading my books is like sitting across the kitchen table from me. I try not to mince words and go straight to the point. I also like to inject humor. Like the time I wrote about things that a seller might not want to take back as a returned item. I suggested that a merkin would fall into that category. The book went through the various editors and when the author review was sent back, the comments were great. They had to look up what a merkin was, but thought that it definitely was something that shouldn’t be returned.
Lou: No argument here, and yes I did need to look it up. Switching gears, I think it’s fair to say you have a passion for language.
Marsha: I majored in English Literature and never understood why some authors needed to use a bunch of useless terms to describe the scenes. When reading business books, the use of acronyms bothered me. So when I set out to write for my books, I try to write not in the simplest terms possible – always define acronyms – but in everyday spoken language that paints a picture.
Lou: Moving beyond conversational language, I know you’re a huge fan of personalizing communications especially as it relates to customer service. Why do so many companies fail in this area? Is the core issue the cost of scaling personalized communications in customer support?
Marsha: Interesting that the bigger the business, the more they tend to depersonalize the customer. There is no cost involved here, it’s more of a mindset. When businesses realize they are not talking to “customers,” but people, progress is made. For example, why put ticket numbers in an email subject? Why not use the customer’s name in the email – it will be far more personal than “Dear Customer.”
Lou: That’s a great point.
Marsha: Also, the addition of social networks in an email signature lets a tech-savvy customer know where to reach the brand. Happy customers tell their friends of their experiences; social media is the new word of mouth.
Lou: Do one or two companies come to mind that have done a good job in personalizing communications to customers?
Marsha: Let’s get Zappos out of the way. We already know that they do a great job with customer service.
Sidenote: “Levity is the Killer for Business Storytelling” looks at how Zappos tangled with Kayne West.
Lou: What companies beyond Zappos?
Marsha: I have a list of brands on Twitter. If you go to that page, click on some of the brands and you’ll see their Twitter streams. On their page, click to “view All tweets,” and you can observe the customer service magic happening. Which brands are interacting and joking around with their customers? It’s a solid list. Many, sadly, are just broadcasters. Broadcasting may build followers, but a social media community is built on conversations. The airlines do a great job, which must be overwhelming considering weather delays. @AmericanAir is my favorite. They will respond to almost any customer tweet sent their way. In the hospitality business @applebees is very chatty!
Lou: OK, slight digression but related to this topic – Will we ever see the handwritten letter or note come back in vogue? I think my handwritten notes tend to go over well because no one does this anymore. But they take so much concentration because my handwriting makes a doctor’s penmanship look like calligraphy.
Marsha: The quality of your handwriting doesn’t make a difference, your words do. It doesn’t have to be a long note, but a few lines written as a note, even attached to business documents, show your customers that there is a human being behind the paperwork. Think about when you get an order from a company; if the packer writes “Thank you” on the packing slip, it impresses.
Lou: Did you ever see the study by Rob Walker and Josh Glen in which they showed that sharing the story behind a product increased its value on eBay? Regardless, I know you’re a believer in storytelling in business.
Marsha: I would guess that those gentlemen read one of my books. Since my first in 1998, I stressed the importance of storytelling. When you tell the “how and why” about a retail item, it will sell a lot better than if you just post a product name. I also recommend using videos. What a great way to demonstrate your product! When it comes specifically to a collectible item, the provenance is a wonderful way to tell a story: “Grandma bought this painting back in the 40s from a street vendor in Venice, Italy. It hung in our dining room for my entire life. I never liked it, but I figure someone out there might find it fits with their decor.”
Lou: In a way, the title of the “Dummy” books genre is a homage to storytelling. Calling someone a dummy isn’t exactly endearing, but the contrarian approach causes people to stop. Do you continue this theme in your book “eBay For Dummies?”
Marsha: At first I thought, someday I will write a “real book.” I personally didn’t give the brand its due. But who hasn’t purchased or at least read one at one time or other? I love writing books for the “For Dummies” series. In my book the “For Dummies” means no BS. It means I won’t talk in circles just to fill up the page. When you read a For Dummies, book you will learn the topic at hand. It’s just that simple.
Lou: I know the Dummies series is a commercial success.
Marsha, Absolutely. We’re all dummies at something and once we read a For Dummies book, written by a carefully selected expert, we’re not quite as much of a dummy. In 2007, we had a party to celebrate over 1 million sales of my books. Somebody out there clearly likes and buys them.
Lou: I’m sure it’s both a relief and exciting to be releasing your latest version of “eBay For Dummies.” What are the key areas that have been added or updated?
Marsha: I’m always excited. This will be the 8th edition of “eBay For Dummies.” I wrote the first in 1998 and have enjoyed updating them every time. The world and eBay changes so quickly that books need to stay up-to-date. I remembering writing about scanning pictures taken of items for eBay listings – antiquated much? Wiley generally publishes new editions of my books every 18 months or so, and I fill in the changes on my website or on my blog.
Lou: You must also address advances in online commerce?
Marsha: Yes, this edition goes deeper into mobile and of course, integrates social media. I’ve updated the sections on listing an item and descriptions to better compete with larger ecommerce sites; and storytelling is part of it. Also, there have been huge advances in digital photography and I write about the newest tech to make selling easy without spending a lot of money.
Lou: Any surprising stories in the new edition?
Marsha: Sure. Two sisters who unknowingly wanted to buy the same product on eBay and ended up in a bidding was between each other. The winner used my sniping technique which always works.
Lou: Great stuff.